José González’s debut record, Veneer, was the subject of a prolonged rollout, released to great popular and critical excitement in the singer’s native Sweden in 2003 before gathering enough steam to make the cross-pond leap to the U.S. in September of 2005. Stateside, it seemed in constant danger of overexposure, making appearances on everything from cell phone ads to NPR interludes and trendy teen soap operas. Yet, González’s sparse songs proved unexpectedly durable. You get a sense when listening to his clean, stately music – hushed vocals, warm melodies and classical acoustic fingerpicking – that he ‘s working from a perfectionist’s level of remove.
González is a Swede born to Argentine parents, and there are traces, in his music, of both the smoky traditional folk played in Northern Argentina’s peñas and the melodic majesty of Scandinavian pop. But these elements have been so precisely blended and reduced as to become somehow weightless. Far from being effusive, there’s an icy precision to Veneer’s double-tracked vocals and careful fretwork that works in its favor.
At first glance, In Our Nature, González’s second full-length release, appears to follow precisely the model of its predecessor. Behind the austere, sketched cover art is a collection of austere acoustic originals and one showstopper of a cover (Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” has replaced The Knife’s “Heartbeats”). Dig deeper, however, and there are subtle differences. Foremost among these, it seems, is that on In Our Nature, González proves willing to disrupt the stately balance described above in favor of an urgency of feeling. There’s a hard, brittle bite to the strings on “Down The Line,” a clipped quality to the vocals in “Killing For Love” that’s atypical. In the places where González sounded most urgent on Veneer – “Remain,” for example – the rolling bossa nova beat and warm glow of his singing worked to smooth out any edge. Here, the singer wants his listeners to really hear what he’s saying – “What’s the point when the love makes you hate and kill for it?” (“Killing For Love”), and “Put down your sword, send home your dogs, open up your doors“ (“In Our Nature”). He’s lodging a protest, and he’s willing to disrupt the cool equilibrium he achieved on Veneer to do so.
With his stripped-down, acoustic versions of songs by The Knife, Kylie Minogue, and Joy Division, González has earned a reputation as an astute interpreter of other artists’ material. He tries a similar trick this time with Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” but it doesn’t work quite as well. The original’s effect had so much to do with its gauzy atmosphere, the way Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser’s voice flickered over the throbbing beat and the melancholy piano. Leached of that, González’s version sounds hollow – he enunciates lyrics that Fraser played for mood, and builds to a booming, low-end crescendo of acoustic guitar notes that never feel as thick and pulsing as the Massive Attack version.
Much more effective is the heartrending closer – the eight-minute “Cycling Trivialities.” It burns itself out shy of its length, but it’s still a perfect example of what González does best – intricate nylon string figures and understated multi-tracked vocals that blend and build to a soaring whole, even while maintaining the fragility and careful architecture of a spider web. There are fewer of these breathtaking moments on In Our Nature – nothing that quite rivals the beauty of “Crosses” and “Heartbeats” – but the record can still be called a success. González has wisely resisted the urge to bulk up his sound, and concentrated instead on seeing how far a guitar, his voice and a few continents worth of influences can carry him.